High school redesign in Rhode Island offers lessons for all communities

Teams of school builders across Rhode Island are reflecting on their six month school design journey. What they learned might surprise you.

By Katelyn Silva

XQ+RI Teams Reflect on Six Months of Getting Real and Thinking Big in order to Serve ALL Students 

Four individuals in matching blue T-shirts with identifiers across the chest—Parent, Educator, Principal, Student—are singing the theme song from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood“Who are the pe-ople in your neigh-bor-hood, in your neigh-bor-hood, in your neigh-bor-hoooooooood?”

These critical members of their “neighborhood” have spent months developing a plan to reimagine their high school for the XQ+RI Design Challenge, a first-of-its-kind initiative to rethink high school at a statewide level. The team is one of 20 giving 5-minute overview presentations on stage that chilly day in January. These overviews represent more than 6 months of deep reflection and hard work, digging into XQ Design Principles, creating Learner Goals, and confronting (often uncomfortable) truths about how various school communities have fallen short of serving all students well. Most of all, they represent big thinking and hard-won growth, the kind that is meant to transform an entire state.  

Big thinking and big change require getting real

Over the XQ+RI process, the majority of teams have come to the realization that they have not been serving all students with equity. On stage, one school says, “When we looked closer, significant members of our community, especially those with IEPs, ELLs, and students of color, were not being served well.” A team from one of the wealthiest school districts in the state admits, “We are creating great test-takers but we are not preparing critical thinkers who are prepared for the real world.” A suburban high school team says, “XQ forced us to look at the data and overcome our assumptions that all students are happy and all students are engaged in our building. The truth is that we have inequity.”

Ultimately, each team has come to understand that they’re only as strong as their least well-served student and re-design plans include big thinking on specific tactics to engage every member of the community. Currently, teams admit that students are bored. Some are wholly disengaged. Teams are working to make school a place where students want to be through flexible scheduling, personalized pathways, real-world learning that applies classroom lessons to everyday lives, community engagement and internships, and civic engagement projects. Other tactics include putting relationships front and center with protected time for students with mentors, building student-to-student bonds across grade levels, and explicit attention to social-emotional development, out-of-school concerns, and mental health. 

Forging a new path for Rhode Island puts relationships and student voice at its center

“This is the first time ever that we’ve had 20 teams come together for 2 days every month to think about what they’re going to do on behalf of their communities so that RI looks completely different. Remember when and where we started and how far you’ve come,” advises Nicole Campbell, XQ Senior Director of State and Local Partnerships, to the teams.

These 20 Rhode Island teams have banded together over six months to build strong, meaningful relationships with their members, coaches, across teams, and at schools they’ve visited across the country. Team members represent the spectrum of stakeholders including students, administrators, teachers, and principals, but also community members, parents, and school board members. Every team has come to understand the power of deep, caring, trusting relationships in building a better future for their school and community. Each voice matters. Each has helped shape a thorough, in-depth plan to rethink how high school is approached, but perhaps no voice has mattered as much as those of the students.  

A charter high school with two locations says, “Students have been central to our decision-making. Through this process, they’re turning their voices into reality by developing their own futures. We believe every student deserves to be part of and benefit from the changes that will happen.” 

Another team, representing a school developed primarily to serve young black males who are over-age and under-credit for high school graduation, comments that “a liberating educational experience is about moving from conforming to preparing young people to have a choice and a voice in their future in order to become authentic selves and be civically engaged. We are a community.”  

The voices of students from across teams are beautifully diverse and represent individuals from every kind of background. Particularly highlighting that theme is a team from a struggling inner-city high school where 62 percent of students are chronically absent. On the stage, students take turns stepping forward and declaring something important about their identities: I come from a troubled past. I am Puerto Rican. I am gay. I help pay my family’s rent. Soy Americana. I am homeless. I am a future soldier. I will be the first in my family to go to college. I am a multi-sport athlete. I am a future entrepreneur.  

It’s powerful. 

The work has only just begun. 

The XQ+RI design process hasn’t been easy, but the consensus among the teams is that it’s been priceless. They know their work has only just begun. Regardless of who receives implementation grants, every team is committed to ensuring they are only as successful as their least well-served student.

Their students are going to hold them to it. 

A student from Scituate, a small town in central Rhode Island, who has plans to become a politician and change-agent addresses the room at the close of the day: “We will hold you all accountable. The journey cannot end here. Even if you don’t win an implementation grant, your promises to students must still stand. XQ is not just about today but about the equitable future we want to create for our young people … We need to create a culture that properly addresses inequities within diverse populations. The time to act is now.” 

The final XQ+RI Design Day for team presentations took place on January 28. Teams submitted their big ideas with focused, detailed applications in mid-February. The implementation grant winners will be selected by early March. 

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